Skeptics keep you honest, and should be celebrated. A skeptic about Web 2.0 is David Crotty, author of the Cold Spring Harbor Protocols blog “Benchmarks.” In a recent post, he pointed me to a review of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” in which Tara Brabazon derides Web 2.0 as a “digitised echo chamber.” (She’s British. They spell better.)

Brabazon’s main message seems to be that because, like now, you’re reading me echoing some of her arguments, this is kind of a drag and speaks to some intellectual sloth on my part. As she puts it, “The long tail of proliferating mediocrity, where bloggers link to other bloggers and podcasters namecheck other podcasters, is the great cost of Web 2.0.” Well, to counter the perception that I’m being intellectually lazy, I’d offer a few other ways of thinking about the role and purpose of “echoes” within a communication platform like Web 2.0:

  1. Echoing and repetition are key aspects of quality communication. People often have to hear things more than once. Children have to hear words multiple times before learning them. Stories “have legs” because they get repeated. In oral cultures, repetition and “echoing” were vital parts of transmitting stories across generations. As anyone with small children knows, culture is transmitted by the repetition of events (birthdays, religious celebrations, family traditions). Echoes are all around us. We reverberate with their patterns.
  2. Scholarly communication has long been a slowly advancing echo chamber, with references, quotation, “fair use,” and extracts providing the fuel for arguments of all sorts. Scholars are taught to echo. The scholarly environment has echoes galore. The impact factor, CrossRef, and other features are all based on recording echoes.
  3. While there are people who perceive an echo as an echo, for many the echo is the first time they’ve experienced the sound. In the rough and fragmented information world we live in, we need echoes to transmit information around caverns and down culverts. This might be the first time you’re hearing about David’s entry on this matter. Is this an echo to you?
  4. The way echoes are built into the Internet, they lead to direct access and open sharing. Again, the primary material is so readily available and retains its integrity perfectly, there is no signal loss moving from one sound to another. These aren’t just echoes. The links to sources are much more, and they’re everywhere.

I could go on, but essentially I think most communication, especially scholarly communication, has been and will continue to be about echoes. Echoes are not a Web 2.0 phenomenon.

(Remember the coverage of Anna-Nicole Smith anyone? That took “echo” to a level of painful auditory feedback I hope we never see again.)

Science, history, fine art, medicine, and culture itself are iterative, cumulative constructions laced with echoes of predecessors and precedents. Last night, I was reading a reconsideration of Herodotus, an echo from 2,500+ years ago. This morning, I read a quote from Confucius, another distant echo. I want to read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” or “Othello” again this summer. Some voices echo for centuries.

Brabazon also despairs about how Web 2.0 is shutting out voices we should hear — the poor, the undereducated, the elderly. I wonder how you can simultaneously agonize about the bar being too low and the bar being too high. I think she’s just being negative. In addition, I think the elderly and the poor have more access to information technology than ever, and more chances for participation. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. Progress is like that.

For STM publishers, many of whom are putting their archives online, the echoes generated by these linkable materials will help preserve ideas into the future and lead to new insights as the figurative sound waves are reprocessed and reconsidered. Programs like LOCKSS are essentially echo-chambers baffled and tuned to preserve and sustain.

So, I vote for echoes, and if Web 2.0 is creating a larger and more linked group of people learning from each other and echoing and amplifying one another’s thoughts, I don’t see the downside. If that’s “proliferating mediocrity,” then we’ve been at it for some number of centuries now.

Thanks for the echo, David. (Again, you can find his blog here.)

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


1 Thought on "Web 2.0 — The Vital Echo Chamber"

Thanks for the comments. I think it really depends on what you’re calling an “echo”. If it’s a reference to something or someone else online, particularly one that adds original thought or commentary (as you’ve done here) then it’s something to be celebrated. The type of “echo” I think she’s referring to, and one that’s often seen in the world of science blogging, is more in reference to the closed, circular world that continues on in a reinforcing loop. I think blogging, and Web 2.0 in particular, selects for a particular personality type. Those who enjoy participating tend to flock together, which creates the false impression of a wider consensus, which is then looped ad infinitum until you’re left with a skewed view of reality. You end up more with cheerleading and evangelism than you do reasoned critical thinking.

Shirky himself has attempted to address some of her comments (particularly the one about “people with too much time”) here:

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